The Editor ran across the expression “tarnished with the same brush” recently, and was amused by the mistake. But then it occurred to him to search for the expression on the great wide Internet, and he discovered that the mistake is very common.
Mistake, he says, because the expression is “tarred with the same brush,” which makes sense as a metaphor—whereas “tarnished with the same brush” will never make sense, because you don’t use a brush to tarnish things. To be “tarred with the same brush” is to be made to share in another’s infamy. In older writing, “tarred with the same brush” often means simply “sharing the same undesirable qualities”: “We men are all tarred with the same brush, after all.” But from the twentieth century on, the expression has usually included the idea that the undesirable qualities are unjustly attributed to the person or thing that is “tarred with the same brush”:
l am very concerned that, as real culprits are identified, the Census Bureau will be tarred with the same brush.
In other words, the writer is afraid that the Census Bureau will unjustly be thought guilty of the same crimes, whatever they are.
A quick search reveals that “tarnished with the same brush” is not yet nearly as common as “tarred with the same brush,” but it is common enough to worry about. For example, here is the sentence in which the Editor first noticed the mistake, from an article about bogus vintage wine:
Wrong: Real vintage wine makers in Europe prefer to ignore what is going on, as they are afraid of being tarnished with the same brush.
We don’t have to go far to multiply examples (which we do with the ulterior motive of perhaps drawing more Internet searchers to find the truth on this page):
The vast majority of employment service providers do not operate in this way, and should not be tarnished with the same brush.
Families who have two dwellings on their property are being penalized and tarnished with the same brush as if they are commercial landlords.
As is often the case, the actions of the few sadly become the perception of the many and the entire sector is tarnished with the same brush.
It’s probably just time to find a different angle, and hope that we won’t all be tarnished with the same brush as those acting less than honorably.
We can think of two reasons why some people might incorrectly substitute “tarnished” for “tarred.” One is that no one you know tars things with a brush these days, so the expression does not bring up an image in memory. The other is that Americans especially are very sensitive to language that can be perceived as racist. To tar something is to make it black, and “tarred with the same brush” implies that being made black is undesirable.